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California Lawmaker Wants Bigger Emphasis on Tech Education

Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, has introduced legislation to increase science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in the Golden State.

The number of science and technology students could rise sharply if new education legislation becomes law in California.

State lawmakers are considering AB 706, a bill that establishes the California STEM AmeriCorps (CalSTEM) program, which is aimed at improving the performance of K-12 students in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math. The measure may also increase the number of college graduates in those academic areas.

Sponsored by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, AB 706 attempts to help address workforce shortages in STEM jobs in California. Approximately 30 to 40 percent of STEM occupations are undermanned in the state, according to a news release from Bonilla’s office.

“To have a thriving and successful economy, it is imperative that students have a foundation in STEM education that enables them to obtain jobs in the growing tech and biotech industries here in California,” Bonilla said in a statement. “AB 706 will increase the likelihood that students will participate, and become engaged, in a STEM-focused program which will lead to higher education and greater career opportunities.”

In an email to Government Technology, Bonilla added that her interest in the topic was spurred by her role on the Assembly Select Committee on STEM Education to highlight the positive impacts public-private partnerships can have.

Bonilla noted that by 2018, California will need over 1.1 million STEM jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That would rank the state No. 1 in the nation for the need of STEM workers.

“One way to prepare our students to enter the STEM workforce is to spark an early interest in STEM fields and continue to develop and support that interest,” Bonilla said. “A strong focus on communities of need, who might otherwise not have an opportunity to experience specialized STEM learning, will also diversify and expand our workforce. The use of AmeriCorps members aligns perfectly with this goal of public service.”

California Volunteers, a state office that manages volunteer programs, would administer CalSTEM AmeriCorps under AB 706. The bill also enables California Volunteers to solicit private operating capital.

Bonilla doesn’t anticipate many hurdles getting AB 706 passed, but said it will be “absolutely necessary” to show that both for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations want to participate in the program. She said getting both sectors together is going to take a lot of coordination. Her office is talking with nonprofit and private institutions to gauge their interest in partnering.

While Bonilla was adamant that the main goal of AB 706 is to increase STEM learning across the state, the bill could also help reduce student loan debt.

“Upon successful completion of AmeriCorps service, the volunteer receives a stipend that can be used to pay off student loans,” Bonilla said. “Essentially, the creation of [Cal]STEM AmeriCorps will increase the number and range of opportunities that college graduates will have to give back to their communities and pay back their student loans.”

At press time, AB 706 was assigned to the California Assembly Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review, and could be discussed on March 28.

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.